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An Andy For All Seasons

July 13, 2010

So there I was, minding my own beeswax, as we used to say back in the 5th grade, which is where I was, leaving school for the day, and there was my weird friend Andy, waiting to play with my head.

“Did you see my new comic strip?” he asked, all excited.

“No. There wasn’t any comic strip.” I said. The day before I had gone to where we kids bought our Mad Magazines, there on Middle Neck Road in Great Neck, where Andy and I grew up in the 1950s. “And there was no ‘Children’s Magazine’ there, either.”

Andy looked positively hurt. “Of course there is!” he insisted. “Go back and if you don’t see it there, ask for it.”

“Andy! I did ask for it! It’s not there!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Charley. I’ll prove it. Spell ‘Children’s’”.

“C-h-i-l-d-r-e-n-’s”.

“No, you idiot! That spells ‘Chile – drens!’ You got it wrong! Now go back and see my comic strip!

So I did, and it wasn’t there. The next day, I saw him again.

“Great! It must have sold out!” he said. And I believed him! That was the day I got taken in by Andy, and became one of the first of what would eventually be millions.

   

Andy Kaufman: A man who first appeared on stage in high school as a blind Cuban bongo player; who worshipped African drummer Baba Olatunji and wrote violent absurdist prose. He invented Tony Clifton, the world’s most obnoxious nightclub singer; played Latka Gravis on TV’s Taxi (another star of the show, Danny Devito, would later cast Jim Carrey in a movie about Andy’s life, Man On The Moon from the REM song also about Andy). He made more guest appearances on Saturday Night Live than anyone else up to that time. He would tour the country and read from The Great Gatsby until the audience would boo him off the stage (except in Iowa, where he went on to finish at 4:00 am to a standing ovation). He would lip-synch to the Mighty Mouse theme song (“Here I come to save the day!”).  He challenged women to wrestle him onstage and instantly reduced his audience to acting like prepubescent boys and girls, cheering and booing.  He was a multi-phrenic who was greater than the sum of his parts.

I mean, how many guys whose favorite movie was Dumbo, and who practiced Transcendental Meditation three times a day, could turn around in the middle of a “foreign man” shtick conducted in perfect Serbo-Pakistani and give a 10 minute Elvis Presley imitation that Elvis himself declared the best he’d ever seen.

And although Andy’s been gone from us over 25 years, we could sure use him now! Actually, we can use him now – to inspire our creativity and our consciousness. Because Andy loved to mess with reality; to fuck minds, or blow them. Because he’d punish you for thinking you knew the difference between what was real and what wasn’t. Because he was fearless and, as one comedian acknowledged, “…simply unafraid to die onstage”. Because he tilted  between counter-culture and counter intuitive. Because he knew how to get people’s attention and give them not entertainment so much as an experience. Because he can still make us laugh and think while he pushes the envelope and then rips it up in our faces.

Within a few years of our encounter in the 5th grade, the world had been transformed. By the time I was 21 in 1970, everything had gone by at warp speed, and it would take a lifetime to sort it all out.  And by the time Andy and I were 35, he was dead, and with him, one of the best and wildest of us all.  I look back now as a psychotherapist and think of him as my first patient back there in elementary school. I couldn’t figure him out then; and I can’t now.

His humor was often not funny. His nostalgic naiveté was jaded. He grew (I think) up, looking for playmates, a Peter Pan with a pointed tail. His Never Never Land was a place where comedy was performed in a cerebral theater, where your brain took the pratfalls and he did the laughing.

When, at his Carnegie Hall appearance in 1979, he told us the 130 black-robed singers he’d brought onstage as an encore was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I knew otherwise. And when he then said that we were all – all 2800 of us – invited out for milk and cookies, and ran up the aisle and out the front doors, we all knew the concert was over. So we applauded; the lights went on, and out we went  —  only to discover all of West 57th Street lined with a dozen yellow school buses! Ten minutes later, there we were, shmoozing with Andy in some high school cafeteria eating Famous Amos cookies and drinking Sealtest.

Kaufman was a cross between Sartre, Tiny Tim and Rasputin. He thrived where the rubber meets the road, in that silent noplace where Howdy makes a Doody, and where we know the sound of one hand clapping. A Chuck Yeager of the inner limits, he liked to shit on the border patrol protecting reality from the laughing gods. A nihilistic elf; a Zen guerilla. At his best, he gave us nothing.

When he died in ’84, what I found maddening was that this non-smoking health nut who grew his own wheat grass died of lung cancer. Dead, he managed to pull the rug out from my hope by not pulling the Ultimate Joke on us at his funeral. And don’t think I was the only one who half-expected it, either! This last non-goof left us, once again, stranded with nothing, save the lingering inspiration to Love It All. And from that day on, I figured – hey, why the hell not?

 

 A further sampling of Andy:

Watch how he destroys a TV skit (with Michael Richards): http://video.yahoo.com/watch/250023/1917701

Andy On Letterman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6p0sr2BejUk

Wrestling Women: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uQlB99WCuk

One of dozens of websites devoted to Andy: http://andykaufman.jvlnet.com/toc.htm

Today’s Joygasm: 

“What is reality anyway? Nothin’ but a collective hunch.” — Trudy, The Bag Lady  (as played by Lily Tomlin in The Search For Intelligent Life In The Universe).  

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel W permalink
    July 13, 2010 7:57 am

    Wow. I am thoroughly psyched out by Andy Kaufman. It seems like all he does is be brutally honest with himself and IS his own insecure self… that’s his schtick. He puts himself into situations that involve acting and he does the exact opposite. Or at least that’s what it looks like to me.

    That’s a neat story about him, Charley.

    He just seems like a guy who’s not afraid to be afraid.

  2. July 13, 2010 1:29 pm

    Charley, thank you for sharing this wonderful remembrance of a comic genius who was taken from us way too soon. You were blessed to know him as a classmate and friend…we were blessed to know him as the man who could push every one of our buttons and still earn our love and admiration.

  3. Dave Abramowitz permalink
    July 14, 2010 4:27 am

    Nyet, Charley – Rasputin was a kind of Satanic figure, a real serial killer like Stalin. Sartre was an atheist who kind of needed to make a religion out of it. Over-rated and third-rate, he didn’t offer much. The man never smiled. His eyes never laughed. He was all in his heAd. Tiny Tim was a parody of himself, a sad, self-hating void of a man. Disconnected, one can still feel his sadness and separtion/desparation, BUT ANDY KAUFMAN, ah, who was like him? He was on a kind of mad mission to keep the child alive. He knew life as essentially an affai of the heart, as you so beautifully expressed it in your way. Andy Kaufman, he could be anybody because he could be pure imagination. He left us delighted, even, in spite of ourselves. He could hit just the right spot on our funny bone, and, like our best, true comics reminded us not to take life so seriously. Had he lived, potentially he could have found himself more and more.

    He still needs our prayers, you know.

    Thank you, Charley for being so empty and overflowing and reminding us that ANDY KAUFMAN, your brother-in-spirit LIVES!

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